I drove about a mile from the veterinary clinic before I had to pull over. I couldn't see through the tears welling in my eyes. When I started blubbering like a 2-year-old whose birthday balloon had just escaped to the sky, I eased my truck onto a side street so other motorists wouldn't stare.
Prince, my prized English setter, was just about to succumb to kidney failure via my vet's euthanasia needle. Now all the October memories of him standing rock solid, promised to scent, tail at 12 o'clock were flooding into my mind like the tears on my face. To make matters worse, he was just 8 years old. Still in his prime. But after weeks of picking through his chow, then ignoring it completely, he was a cruel shadow of the athletic bird dog he used to be.
I had ponied up the money for the blood work hoping the results would point to a magic pill. But there is no cure for canine kidney failure. And the results of the tests couldn't have been clearer.
In the past week I had staggered through the stages of grief. Denial: The vet will tell me there's an experimental treatment we could try. Anger: This has to be the breeder's fault. Bad genes. And why do I allow myself to get so close to these dogs? Bargaining: Please, God, I'll attend mass every day for two weeks. I need a miracle here. Depression: I'll never have another bird dog. I'm too old to consider another puppy.
That last abstract thought kept haunting me. Am I too old for another pup? Finding the answer to that question at age 71 requires almost metaphysical thinking not normally associated with bird hunting. It has been painfully clear to me over decades of gun dog ownership that they don't live long enough. But now the question is: Will I live long enough to do a new puppy justice? Will I still be slogging through the sloughs for pheasants in another five to 10 years?
I'm still in good shape. Maybe the cliché about 70 being the new 60 is true. On the other hand, I'm already beyond the biblically-allotted three score and 10. But I'm still getting after the birds as I did in my youth. Well, maybe a little slower in the afternoons.
My father lived to 86, but he gave me his Remington 12 gauge when he turned 80. For me, that's less than nine years down the road. On the other hand, famed football coach Bud Grant still is buying gun dogs, and I've got 10 or 12 years on him.
All these pro and con thoughts were clouding what should have been a clear and happy decision. I've offered this advice to countless friends: When you have to put a dog down, get a puppy. The cuteness, the frenetic activity and, yes, the trauma of an 8-week-old dog won't cure the grief or replace the dog you just put down. But it will preoccupy you in a joyous way.
So now, could I practice what I had been preaching and step up to a new setter puppy? The element of time kept looming. Looking back there were very few days in my life I hadn't put a pan of chow under the nose of a white dog. Looking forward, few among us know how much time we have left.
I tentatively scanned the Internet for spring litters. A breeder nearby in Wisconsin featured a photograph of four just-born balls of white fur. But one among them had a double black mask, an exact replica of the best bird dog I ever hunted over. The Bandit. It was hard to dismiss the possibilities in that puppy's face.
My mind's eye focused on a particular hedge row in southern Iowa where my past setters had pinned many a rooster. The owner of that ground has been an inspiration for me. Well into his 80s, he's still clambering up and down the steep steps of his green tractors like a young man. I once asked him how he did it. The simple advice he offered now seemed especially relevant: You just keep moving.
So in the end I decided to just keep moving, with a four-legged hunting partner leading the pace, spurring me on. My new puppy, now 4 months old, shows lots of promise and potential. His future is full of hope. Like mine.
Retired from the workaday world, Bill Klein lives in May Township, just north of St. Paul.